“Someone broke our bench? Are you fucking serious?”
Chef sighed. Chef, in these paragraphs, is Tony Maws. Chef and proprietor of Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap and Trotter in Cambridge, MA. At the time, it was only Craigie — a mothership where he had relocated his tiny Craigie Street Bistrot to the bustling center of Central Square. Central Square was a funky neighborhood, housing much of the student spillover from Harvard and MIT. Massachusetts Avenue, the four-lane behemoth that bisected the main drag, was lined with liquor stores, head shops, banks, old school diners, an all organic Co-Op, and some of the best ice cream in Boston, just for fun.
“Why don’t we just go with one bench?” Asked Scott, the GM. Scott was in his early 40s and a long-time veteran of the industry. When I wrote anonymous letters to twelve chefs around Boston, Scott took the time to write me back. He was the only one who answered.
“No, one bench sucks. People get pissed when there isn’t enough seating, and we already have lines out the door every night at 5 PM.” Tony was thoughtful and ruthless — a survivor of building a restaurant and culture with nothing but his talent and sheer force of will. He didn’t have big investors or a big back up plan, so he was scrappy as hell. The new asshole he ripped me for spending $26 on extra FedEx shipping to ensure we got parchment paper to the restaurant on time is the fourth biggest in my storied list. He also owns the other three, and the list is only four long.
“Let’s just replace it — it sucks to spend money there, but I want people to sit outside.”
“It’s almost October,” Scott answered, “why not push it back to the spring so that it doesn’t take a Boston pounding and then we can start clean?”
“That works for me. Ralphie!”
My nickname was Ralphie. I’m not sure why. I don’t think anyone was quite sure, frankly. Danny Scampoli, the Executive Sous Chef at the time, gifted it to me. He was Boston through and through to his core, accent and all. When I started at the restaurant, I worked the door as a host. Bring people to their table, mark it in the computer, mark it on the pass, so the chef knew how many menus were in the dining room, return to host desk.
Sadly, if I’m honest, I was pretty terrible at this job.
But weren’t you a Harvard grad? I hear you asking yourself. Yes, yes I was. The problem is, Harvard doesn’t make you a warm person. It can contribute to making you a smart person. Restaurants, at least the enduring ones, bring together a person’s ability to use their intelligence to convey calm and warmth in the middle of a constant fire drill. I could nail the fire drill, but I couldn’t do it with anything that resembled grace, poise, or even a smile.
“Ralphie. Can you figure out a bench for us?”
“Yeah! Absolutely! Sure Thing!” I asked zero follow up questions — mistake number one. All I took from this meeting was that, come hell or high water, I was going to buy a goddamned bench.
Over the next week, I spent time bench searching. I was easily into the mid to late 20s of pages of Google searches about all of the possible places that we could even consider purchasing a bench. This responsibility is a pretty big deal. The chef never wants to spend money, so I have to be sure that I get the BEST bench for the BEST price from the BEST place. I’m going to blow his mother fucking bench mind.
Several weeks later, proud as punch, I sat down to our Tuesday manager meeting with a bench report. A bench report, for those ignoramuses out there who don’t do REAL work, is a spreadsheet that contains the names of websites where one can buy a bench, the types of benches they offer, the wood and marks of craftsmanship for said bench, the bench price, the shipping price, and the estimated time of construction based on high scientific analyses of the interior contents of the bench boxes containing the benches as well as the bench components to make the bench.
I had this shit on lock.
But months passed. The winter was pounding and long — huge snowdrifts were routine, and the entrance to the restaurant was a battleground of sopping coats, boots and umbrellas. We couldn’t clean fast enough.
Meanwhile, I continued on my bench odyssey. I was pretty sure that I knew what kind of wood I would want, based on its color, resilience, and price, but the style of these benches was killing me. We were no neighborhood joint — this was a classy establishment, and I was not about to demean its image with a shitty bench. Perhaps, if I found such a good bench, they would replace the other bench with another new bench, and revitalize the entire facade of the restaurant.
Are you bored of hearing me wax about benches? Good — you should be. So was the chef.
In early March, the snow was finally melting, and we had an unmistakably early spring day. It was bracingly cold but brightly clear. Expansive blue skies and intense sunshine lorded over the entire city.
The sun hit me in the face at manager meeting that Tuesday afternoon. I was huddled into the banquette with my big cup of coffee and a hunk of pain de mie (fancy white bread) with Nutella. I had a new bench report, the weather was perfect, and I was feeling pretty good.
“OK,” Chef started, “we always start with something nice. Ralphie — this is one of the best manager meeting food showings of all time. Well done.”
“Thanks, Chef! My something nice is the couple on 31 last night that we convinced to do a tasting, then convinced to do a 10-course, and then added dessert wine to finish their meal. They were filled with joy!”
“Agenda Item #1: New Bench. Ralphie, where are we?”
“Well, Chef, I know that last week I talked about the different shipping options.”
“Hold on — I thought when we left the last meeting you were going to order?”
“Well, I was! But then I realized that there were some other things I hadn’t considered. I want to make sure that I get this right!”
“But there’s no bench coming.” His last sentence was framed more like a sneer. If he were a cartoon, his face might have faded to red and blown the top of spewing imaginary lava all over the table. I kind of wish he had become a cartoon, because then if he killed me, I wouldn’t die.
“…No, Chef…” I stammered, “I didn’t order it.”
I was frozen. Two years after this ordeal, I think that I would have screamed back. Four years later, I would have tried to calmly explain myself and defend my position, like a good boy. Now, I would probably laugh. Imagining someone having such bench passion as to lose his or her shit over a bench, is fucking hilarious. I know this now, and it brings a smile to my face as I write this.
But back then? Shivering.
I was quiet for the rest of the meeting. I kept my head down and took notes, extra diligently, to avoid making eye contact with anyone at the table. When it finally adjourned, the chef turned back as he walked away and said, “You don’t want to know what happens if we don’t have a bench here by next week.” He was right — I didn’t.
Worry not, dear reader. This conflict is not the end of the harrowing tale. I found a great bench, dutifully constructed, and had it at the restaurant by next week. I even saved on shipping by finding an online coupon.
I did receive a ‘Thank You’ from the Chef, and I did have another manager pull me aside to tell me not to worry. I remember these moments as much as the main event and have logged into my inner-wiring that small gestures of kindness and gratitude to make a huge difference to people.
Or, said differently, salsa is the metaphor that I will forever use to think about the difference between ‘working toward’ something and ‘completing’ something.
Tony Robbins talks about this in several of his books. The difference between ‘Movement’ and ‘Achievement.’ Change is obviously necessary. We need to feel like we are accomplishing meaningful work to say engaged, and it’s hard to find real achievement or accomplishment every single day. However, that does that mean that we can completely distance ourselves from getting things done. Many factors obfuscate the deeper purpose of our work, but we ultimately need to commit to a final output and make it happen.
If you were making salsa, what would you do? Buy your produce, and wash it. Cut it up. Mix it together. Season it. Taste it. Season again. Taste it. Season Again. Taste it. Serve it. Each of these steps is important — critical to the process, one might say. For the bench, I become stuck in the season it / taste it wasteland. Back and forth and back and forth. To the end user, in one case the hungry football watcher anxiously clutching a dry tortilla chip with no relief for delicious, spicy salsa in sight, and in the other circumstances a stressed, overworked restaurant team despondent that their boy wonder from Harvard couldn’t buy a bench, both don’t really give a flying fuck until you Serve it. No one gets credit for working toward salsa, or working toward bench buying, or working toward skill building. You get credit for making salsa, buying a bench, and mastering a skill.
This crucial distinction has stayed with me for a long, long time, and continues to be a differentiating factor in the way that I approach a significant amount of the work that I do. I won’t start until I understand what it means to serve the salsa.
It was a painful lesson to learn, but I’m certainly glad that I did.